Throughout my life, I remember hearing gender normative phrases like, “you hit like a girl” or, “be a man.” But what does it really mean to be a man? Is sacrificing your mental health/stability to portray the strong, powerful alpha male worth it? Although some men fray away from mental health, those who look for mental health deal with barriers such as gender norms, socialization and stigmas. Known as the “silent crisis,” men are less able to talk about their mental health concerns due to environmental conditions, ongoing stigmas and competition among men (Herron et al., 2020). In this article, we’ll be diving deeper into men’s mental health and how to conceptualize healthy masculinity.
The conceptualization of masculinity has significantly evolved over hundreds of years. In a recent article, masculinity was defined by Hoffman et al. in a few ways:
Our conceptualization of masculinity naturally comes from social norms depending on where we were raised. One male can conceptualize masculinity as not showing emotions and standing strong, while another might believe that masculinity is showing vulnerability and opening up about their emotions.
Historically, men have been taught at a young age to be “masculine” (strong, powerful, chiseled, etc) and anything outside of being “masculine” is frowned upon. That means, you usually can’t cry, repress all emotions and in extreme cases, lose your true identity. This led to toxic masculinity, an impression of masculinity that hurts men themselves.
One study explored the clinical and societal implications of concepts like “toxic masculinity” and “healthy masculinity.” The factors of toxic masculinity were (Hoffman et al., 2020):
In the study, it stated that, “men can experience distress both when they follow masculine norms (ex. engaging in dangerous risks) and when they fail to live up to those norms (ex. feeling shame or being teased for expressing interest in a gender non-typical interest.” (Hoffman et al., 2020)
In this way, toxic masculinity puts men into a bind. Conversely, men would do better practicing factors of healthy masculinity, such as:
By practicing healthy masculinity and redefining masculinity for yourself, you’ll be able to develop a type of self-awareness that makes outdated norms less central.
Oftentimes, men run into barriers and stigmas that may discourage them from utilizing mental health resources. However, in recent years attention toward men’s mental health has grown tremendously. Globally, men experience higher suicide rates. In a recent news article, “around 1 in 8 men (in England) have a common mental health problem such as depression, anxiety, panic disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder. Around three-quarters, 4,303, of registered suicides in England and Wales in 2019 were among men.” (Fox, 2021)
A recent study described barriers to accessing mens’ mental health services. By using a mental health help-seeking survey, 778 male respondents were analyzed. From there, the participants filled out the Barriers to Mental Health Services Scale–Revised (BMHSS-R). The BMHSS-R is a self report scale (4-point Likert scale) that assesses factors known to prevent individuals from seeking help. Some of the questions from that survey were:
After filling out the survey, they found that 65% of the participants wanted treatment while 35% did not. Men who did not want help were significantly more likely to be unsure if psychotherapy (counseling) really works or is effective. So, one part of the puzzle is perhaps friends sharing with friends the tools or therapists that worked for them. That word-of-mouth experience could help develop trust that seeking help actually does help.
However, the most telling stat was that 73% of the participants believed that they needed to solve their own problems. The emphasis on independence links to traditional ideas of masculinity. How can we turn this around? The study also found that by promoting gender-sensitized campaigns (tailoring mental health services/resources to men) and challenging common myths about the stigma/fear about men’s mental health can be useful. (Seidler et al., 2020).
For example, in recent years, a number of male celebrities have become outspoken about men’s mental health. They’ve paved the way for changing the dialogue around gender and therapy. Dwayne “The Rock'' Johnson also struggled with the stigma of mental health during his early career. In an interview regarding men’s mental health and the ongoing stigma, he stated that, “There's just a DNA, a wiring in us and a constitution that oftentimes doesn't let us talk about when we're scared or vulnerable or things like that.” (Mancuso, 2018). But, Johnson also stated that, “Regardless of who you are or what you do for a living or where you come from, it doesn't discriminate.” Celebrity endorsements such as these show us that even the strongest and most “traditionally masculine” of men support a healthier sense of masculinity, one in which mental health is core to each and every one of us.
Men’s mental health also varies within cultures/tradition and races. In one study, social construction and role theories were used to explore the relationship between masculine norms and mental health among men in Africa (Ezeugwu et al., 2020). They argued that the internalization of social masculinity norms makes African men more susceptible to poor mental health. Therefore, the researchers proposed an inclusive model of addressing the social construction of manly and modulating societal defined roles for men. The model focused on:
COVID-19 has been a driving force in deteriorating mental health and constantly brings unexpected anxieties. In a recent article, Eric Klein, the chairman of Cleveland Clinic’s Glickman Urological & Kidney Institute stated that, “many men are finding themselves in new and different roles as a result of this pandemic; for example, they are out of work or are working around the clock at home looking after kids with their partners all while worrying about their family’s health and their own health.” (Buggey, 2020).
A recent COVID-19 Men’s mental health survey by Cleveland Clinic found that:
Researchers interviewed 37 men about the nature of their business/organization. They wanted to hear participants’ descriptions of thoughts, feelings and experiences about mental health (stress and anxiety) in relation to their workplace structures and processes. They found that, “obvious and subtle workplace expectations for busyness are abundant and may obstruct attending to one’s mental health as well as contribute to a frame of reference where not being busy precipitates feelings of anxiety and depression.”
From their result, they found two themes of workplace expectations for busyness: immediate manifestation and background manifestation. Immediate manifestations are intensity and volume of work while background manifestations are:
Therefore, both obvious and subtle workplace expectations for busyness are abundant and may obstruct attending to one’s mental health. When men are laid off, this only worsens the impact, as now not being busy precipitates feelings of anxiety and depression (Lashewicz et al., 2020).
A scary finding from recent research was that men are 3 times more likely than women to die by suicide. They are less likely to seek professional mental health care and may externalize depressive symptoms through anger or violence. However, recent studies show new ways to facilitate men’s mental health treatment engagement, resilience, and recovery (Kealy et al., 2020).
A cross-sectional design study focused on men’s mental health and mentalizing (reflective functioning). Mentalizing/reflective functioning is defined as the capability to reflect on one’s own and others’ mental states in terms of desires, intentions and feelings (Kealy et al., 2020). 1,065 men who had self-reported mental health concerns completed measures of reflective functioning, psychological distress, resilience, and personal growth initiative. Resilience was measured using the Brief Resilience Scale (BRS), a 6-item self-report measure that refers to tendencies in dealing with stress and adversity (ex. “I usually come through difficult times with little trouble”). Personal Growth (relevant life changes, motivation to engage) was measured using the Personal Growth Initiative Scale (PGIS).
The study found that working on reflective functioning developed greater men’s resilience for personal change, indicating a potentially important ingredient for men’s mental health. They also found that reflective functioning was a significant mediator of the link between resilience and personal growth initiative (Kealy et al., 2020). Especially for men who are still resistant to going to therapy or seeking other help, learning mentalizing / reflective functioning may be a simpler step in the right direction.
Self therapy app LIFE Intelligence is a 9-topic self-awareness journey used for mental health, career development, and relationship skills. Part therapy, coaching, and relationship counseling content, the app provides an all-in-one tool to optimize each aspect of your life. The best part? The majority of interest in the app comes from men.
We hypothesize that the LIFE app appeals to men for a few reasons. First, the app presents material in a scientific and efficient way, avoiding the “fluffy” stigma associated with traditional wellness options. Second, it appeals to those seeking productivity tools to develop leadership or time-management skills, with the understanding that professional success or failure contributes greatly to our mental health, and vice versa. And finally, LIFE is entirely self-guided and private.
Gender norms and stigmas can lead you astray from reliable mental health resources that can help you in the long run. Mental health doesn’t operate in a silo. Our careers and relationships affect how we feel. LIFE Intelligence helps users practice reflection and mentalizing privately, in the context of personal and professional development. Give it a try and start on the first step of self-reflection.
Herron, R. V., Ahmadu, M., Allan, J. A., Waddell, C. M., Roger, K. (2020). “Talk about it:” changing masculinities and mental health in rural places? Social Science & Medicine. 258. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2020.113099
Hoffman, E., Addis, M. E. (2020). Reconstructing and/or Deconstructing Masculinity: A Commentary on the Case of “Tommy”. Pragmatic Case Studies in Psychotherapy, 16(3), 312-319.
Seidler, Z. E., Rice, S. M., Kealy, D., Oliffe, J. L., & Ogrodniczuk, J. S. (2020). What gets in the way? Men’s perspectives of barriers to mental health services. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 66(2), 105–110. https://doi.org/10.1177/0020764019886336
Buggey, H. (2020). Cleveland Clinic “Coping with COVID” Survey Illustrates the Mental and Physical Toll the Pandemic is Taking on Men. Newsroom.
Lashewicz, B., Mitchell, J., Boettcher, N., Jones, E., Wang, J. L. (2020). You better be as stressed as I am: Working men’s mental health amidst workplace expectations for busyness. Work. 66(3), 645-656.
Kealy, D., Rice, S.M., Seidler, Z.E., Oliffe, J.L. and Ogrodniczuk, J.S. (2021), Reflective functioning and men's mental health: Associations with resilience and personal growth initiative. Stress and Health. https://doi.org/10.1002/smi.3030
Fox, Alexa. (2021). Shocking male suicide figures prompt launch of new mental health service for men. The Northern Echo. https://www.thenorthernecho.co.uk/news/18988065.shocking-male-suicide-figures-prompt-launch-new-mental-health-service-men/
Ezeugwu, C. R., Ojedokun, O. (2020). Masculine norms and mental health of African men: what can psychology do? Heliyon, 6(12). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.heliyon.2020.e05650